Defeating procrastination and increasing our motivation is probably the most useful life skill we can learn.
Recommendations, advice, and methods abound on the internet and in popular self-help books. What should we do? Who should we listen to? What really works? (Click here if you’re impatient and just want the advice!)
The Procrastination Equation is an awesome book by Piers Steel that accounts for every major scientific finding on procrastination, and draws upon the best current theories of motivation.
This isn’t the place to thoroughly cite the scientific literature on procrastination – that would take a book (i.e. The Procrastination Equation) – this is merely an exposition of what the research shows.1 I want to focus on how we can use it and what we can do to fight procrastination. I extracted as much advice from The Procrastination Equation as I could and separated it into two ‘types’: Things we can do in our lives, in general, to reduce procrastination, and things we can do right now to stop procrastinating right now.
This post focuses on the first of the two – things we can do in general to reduce procrastination.
For example, turning some of our necessary tasks into routines and habits is a useful tool, but takes time and effort to put into place – it’s not something we can do immediately when we notice we’re procrastinating, because it’s just going to keep us from what we’re supposed to be doing.
First, a quick summary of how the procrastination equation works.
Picking Apart the Procrastination Equation
The procrastination equation below shows that motivation is made up of four parts: Expectancy, Value, Impulsiveness, and Delay (these will be explained more below). As the equation shows, if we can increase expectancy of success and the value of the task, our motivation will increase. Likewise, if our impulsiveness and delay between now and the task’s reward decrease, our motivation will increase.
Expectancy refers to our perceived odds of getting the reward and how much we expect success or failure. The more we expect to succeed and be rewarded, the more motivated we are to work on the task. An essay doomed to a poor grade from a menacing teacher won’t be appealing to work on.
Learned helplessness, where one has learned to expect failure, even when opportunity arises, is exactly what we don’t want. On the flip side, too much optimism – “How could I possibly fail?” – is also a bad thing, because we may underestimate what is required and put off tasks until the last minute.
We want a healthy amount of optimism (to stay motivated) and a pinch of pessimism (to keep us grounded in reality).
The value of a task stems from the pleasantness of doing the task, and the benefits of its after-effects (the size of the reward).
If you enjoy exercising it will be much easier to maintain a schedule. If you hate seeing clutter your house will stay tidy. If you hate doing your taxes, you’ll be much more likely to meet up with your friends at a pub. If successfully completing this project nearly guarantees a promotion, you’ll have an easier time getting focused.
We want to increase a task’s value by making it more pleasant and rewarding.
Impulsiveness is the tendency to get distracted by more urgent or interesting things, and the tendency to lose focus on the current task. Distractions and temptations, such as TV, internet, chocolate, or socializing break your focus and increase procrastination. On average, this is the biggest cause of procrastination.
Are you suffering from it? You probably are! Having a hard time focusing on one thing? Living impatiently in the moment? Do you want it all now?
We want to decrease our impulsiveness so we can maintain focus on a task.
The delay of a task is the time between the present and the task’s reward. The further away the reward is, the less motivated we are. Because universities can’t give out final grades until after the end of the semester – creating a large delay – there is little motivation to work on an essay right now. The sooner a task’s rewards come, the better it is for our motivation.
So that’s the procrastination equation. What follows are things we can do to optimize our life for less procrastination and more motivation. Most of them are not things you should do when you are “in the middle” of procrastinating. They are things you should set some time aside to do.
This post takes each of the four parts of the equation and reviews numerous techniques and personal changes that will help increase motivation and reduce procrastination. It’s a long one, but it’ll be worth it!
There is a lot of stuff in here, and it might get overwhelming. As you read through, if a few items particularly strike you as large players in your procrastination, or easy and fun techniques to reduce it, focus on implementing those first. DO NOT try to do everything at once – you’re guaranteed to be overwhelmed!
Jump to a Specific Section
- How to Increase Expectancy
- How to Increase Value
- How to Decrease Impulsiveness
- How to Decrease Delay
How to Increase Expectancy
We want a healthy amount of optimism and a pinch of pessimism. What can we do to generally increase (or decrease it, if needed) our expectancy of success?
Vicarious Victory: Know What Inspires You and Why
Optimism and pessimism are contagious. Knowing what inspires us can be very motivating, and by making our inspirations easily accessible and visible, we can be constantly reminded of them.
Consider: Do you know what inspires you?
Write out and/or find what movies, books, music, art, people, groups, and ideas that inspire you.
Find a place to make your inspirations easily visible and accessible.
There are also many community groups for fostering positivity, like Toastmasters or a Rotary club.
Find and join a like-minded, inspiring, and optimistic group.
Prepare Yourself for Success Spirals
A success spiral is a situation in which you achieve one goal after another, and pay attention to your success. By achieving one challenging, meaningful, and achievable goal after another, you gain confidence in your ability to succeed.
This explains why I became addicted to rock climbing, and why it’s so easy to be motivated to go to the climbing gym. Rock climbing, especially for beginners, produces constant, noticeable, incremental improvements in strength and skill – “Awesome, I can climb every 5.10 in the gym, and the 5.11s are getting easier and easier!”
Consider: Do you tend to appreciate your successes?
Create a daily log of success and achievements.
Plan for the Worst and Hope for the Best
Over-optimism tends to happen when you aren’t aware of what could go wrong. Do you generally have unrealistic expectancy of success? Do you generally make any backup plans? What difficulties and setbacks do you generally anticipate?
Consider: Are you generally over-optimistic or overly pessimistic?
Consider: Do you ever make backup plans or anticipate difficulties and setbacks?
This will help you know whether you should focus on increasing or decreasing your expectancy when you are procrastinating.
Accept Your Delay Addiction
Procrastination is not a weakness of character. Our brains are wired for procrastination.
How many times have you told yourself “just this once”? Recognize your own brain’s tricks. Allowing one delay or submission will probably lead to another. Don’t trivialize and think one cigarette is ‘only one’, because it will very likely lead to another, then another, then another… Accept that procrastination is normal; don’t pretend you’re not tempted by it!
Consider how you normally procrastinate. What distracts you? What do you do instead? What types of things do you put off?
Make a list of ways you habitually procrastinate, and post it where you work.
This will give you a better idea of what is causing procrastination, and how it typically manifests.
Kill Learned Helplessness
Learned helplessness is when you come to always expect failure, even when a good opportunity is present. Don’t train yourself to be helpless! Do you ever think, “Success is impossible, so what’s the point?” Remember that putting in zero effort guarantees you won’t succeed.
Consider: Do you often feel eager to give up? Do you tend to see things as doomed to failure?
Remember that zero effort guarantees no success.
How to Increase Value
We want to increase a task’s value by making it more pleasant and rewarding. What can we do to generally increase the value of a task?
Set Major Goals
Having a clear idea of our important, bigger goals in life is a great way to inject some meaning into what we do. It is generally better to have less of these than more, as it gives us something to focus our attention and effort on.
Having major goals that are personally meaningful can help us see the value of each small task and goal that is linked to them. (even if it’s through a long chain) which will increase our motivation.
What are the big goals that you’re currently working on?
Write them out, in detail, using proper goal forming (see Advanced Goal Making under How to Decrease Impulsiveness).
Put them somewhere easy to access and easily visible.
Know Your Skills and Achieve Flow
Flow is the state where you get lost in a task because your skill level matches the difficulty level. If it’s too easy, you’ll be bored. If it’s too hard, you’ll run out of steam or get frustrated.
Remember, always try to match difficulty with your skills.
Increase Your Energy
Steel says being too tired is a one of the top reasons for procrastination! For many people this is the biggest factor in their procrastination. Consider each of the following lifestyles that influence your energy levels, and think about what you can do to change them.
Are you exercising? Exercise is just all-around awesome. It’s good for your energy levels, mental alertness, physical health, attractiveness, and so on.
How often, and in what form, do you exercise? Preferably find a form of exercise that you enjoy (rock climbing, anyone?), as it will be much easier to stick with it.
Find a fun way to exercise and do it!
Are you eating healthy food. What does your typical meal look like? What are your nutrition habits? How often do you eat fast food? Are your blood sugar levels fluctuating wildly throughout the day from unhealthy snacking and too many simple carbs?
Buy less junk food. Buy a bunch of small, healthy, nutritious snacks.
Make healthy snack easily accessible and graze on them throughout the day; this helps steady blood sugar levels.
How is your sleep hygiene? Are you getting enough sleep? How is the quality of your sleep? How hard is it to get out of bed in the morning? How many times do you tend to snooze your alarm clock?
Go to sleep at the same time; wake up at the same time.
Have a regular wind-down routine (make one if needed.
Make your sleep time and space a place to escape away from the day’s stresses; have separate spaces for separate things.
Do you plan around your energy, not your time? Attack your harder work when you have the mental energy to do it. Consider that for most people, the optimal time to do your mental “heavy lifting” is in the first few hours of the day. When is your optimal time to work? Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Plan the most difficult work around your peak energy.
Do you take breaks? How often do you take breaks? When you take breaks, are you genuinely relaxed? How long are your stretches of productive work? Consider which forms of non-work are genuinely relaxing.
Can you reduce your commitments? If you can’t seem to get enough energy to do your work, try to cut back on your commitments or get some help. Your brain has a limited amount of willpower and resources. By stretching yourself too thin you may be reducing your effectiveness on all tasks.
Do you overcommit? Respect your limitations!
Rewards can be a great way to motivate ourselves to get our work done. It helps to know what sort of rewards we like, such as specialty coffee (my personal choice), a scoop of ice cream, self-praise, a night out, or a frivolous purchase. As another example, could you make exercise more enjoyable by having a workout partner whose company you enjoy?
List the types of rewards you like and could give yourself.
Are your recognizing and appreciating your accomplishments?
Know Your Passion
What are you passionate about? Can you clarify it? Can you write it out? Consider performing a career personality test, such as the RIASEC. Then, go out and find a career that is more in line with your passions and accounts for your personality, the job market, and your abilities.
How to Decrease Impulsiveness
We want to decrease our impulsiveness so we can maintain focus on a task. What can we do to generally decrease our impulsiveness?
Advanced Goal Setting
Steel calls goal setting the smartest thing you can do to battle procrastination.
Are you good at setting goals? Are you good at organizing and outlining your goals? Do you ever take the time to write them down, or just keep them in your head? Are they specific and measurable? Do you specify deadlines? Do you make them realistic, yet challenging? Do you highlight why they are valuable to you?
When goal-setting, try to make them specific and measurable, realistic yet challenging, and meaningful.
Approach goals are better than avoidance goals. For example, “Get in shape” is much better than “Stop being unfit.”
Make approach (positive) goals.
Are you better with input (process) or output (product) goals? For example, do you prefer “work on this for two hours” over “get this done”? How about running for one hour versus running five kilometres? Input goals tend to be better at the start of a project, such as “Write for three hours.”
Try setting goals both ways and see what works better for you, and when.
Can you break it down into sub-goals? Goals are often too large to be tackled in one go. Breaking goals down into sub-goals reduces the delay between now and the completion of an important task. In general, daily and weekly goals seem to work; having too many sub-goals can become cumbersome. Also try creating at least one very short sub-goal, like “do this for five minutes.” (i.e. ‘Run a Dash‘.)
Are your goals externally visible? Do you have somewhere to put them where you can easily see them? If not, you need to! This can be as simple as a sticky note on the edge of your monitor or an entire wall dedicated to outlining your major life goals and ambitions.
Create a place to put your goals where they will be easily visible – now put them there!
Do you visually track your progress? This can be anything from a smart phone goal-tracking app, to a notebook, to a piece of graph paper on your fridge. This works especially well when creating a habit, which involves doing the same thing every day.
Create a place where you will visually track your progress.
What alternatives generally tempt you? What often distracts or derails you? TV? Movies? Certain web sites? Video games? Novels?
List the specific alternatives that often tempt you away from your work.
Which of the above alternatives can you eliminate (or at least put as far away as possible)? Can you cancel your TV subscription? Unplug the internet? Block unproductive web sites with a tool like RescueTime? Uninstall your video games? Remove your novels from eye sight and easy access?
Get rid of as many tempting alternatives as possible.
Do you ever focus on the abstract qualities of your temptation? Focusing on the characteristics and features (abstract qualities) of your temptation enables you to use the more analytic parts of the brain, rather than the “I really want!” parts. For example, think “There are 24 episodes in this TV show; each one is 45 minutes long,” rather than, “I love this show!”. Likewise, “this unhealthy cake is made up of sugar, fat, and simple carbs,” rather than, “Mmmm cake!”
Write out the abstract aspects of your regular temptations.
Do you ever use covert sensitization? Covert sensitization involves vividly visualizing a scenario that links your temptation with an undesirable outcome. For example, vividly imagine starting work on a presentation at the last minute (you were tempted to play video games instead). Suddenly, you get a terrible headache, so you take some pills, which turn you sleepy. You fall asleep without finishing the presentation. In the morning you sleep in, are late for work, and still haven’t completed the presentation. Your boss has called the entire company, including the CEO in to watch, but you show up late, with nothing to deliver. You’re horribly embarrassed. Someone videos it and uploads to YouTube. You are fired instead of promoted.
Pair your temptation with undesirable images using covert sensitization.
What tends to distract you? Are people constantly walking into your office? Is the phone always ringing? Are text messages and emails always flowing in? These are distractions that interrupt your workflow. Turn off those email alerts and popups! Set your phone to go directly to voicemail when you’re busy. Keep the door closed with a Do Not Disturb sign.
Eliminate distraction cues from your life!
Where is there clutter in your life? Is your desk a mess? How about your office, or your whole house? Clutter creates visual distractions and increases the time spent off-task searching for something like a pen or notebook.
Get rid of the clutter!
Every second of distraction is an opportunity for your mind to lose focus, and increases the time required to get back on track.
Make Failure Painful
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Routines & Habits
Do you know how to build routines and habits? Routines and habits are a powerful force that we can take advantage of to reduce our impulsiveness. There are many resources available online from people who have spent much time developing habits, such as zenhabits.net, scotthyoung.com, and lifehacker.org.
Research how to best create habits.
What useful general-purpose habits can you create? Habits don’t have to be specific to the goals we’re working on. Some habits are useful for achieving any goal you may set. For example, visual tracking, mentioned earlier, is a useful tool for many goals. So, doing your visual tracking at the same time and place every day, and turning that into a habit, will make it much easier to do specific visual tracking when needed.
Build general-purpose habits into your life.
Keep in mind that the strength and weakness of a routine is its lack of flexibility. Sometimes we have legitimate reasons for missing a workout or project deadline.
Pleasure Before Work
Satisfy your needs before they get too intense and distract you from your work.
Schedule in your leisure time before scheduling your work.
Separate Work and Play
Do you work and play in the same place? If possible, create a separate work area.
Only do you work in your work area.
When it’s time to relax or goof off, do it somewhere else.
How to Decrease Delay
What can we do in general to decrease the delay of a task?
Unfortunately this is hard to change; there is often little we can do about a task’s deadline. Goal setting, however, allows us to set intermediate deadlines, which will decrease the effects of delay if they are specific enough. See Advanced Goal Setting under How to Reduce Impulsiveness.
There is a lot of stuff here. Pick a few things that you think will be particularly valuable to you and spend some time to implement them. Do not even think about doing all of it – at least not right away!
Pick one or two things from the above post and implement them.
What works best for you? All of the above suggestions are based on what works for people in general, but some may work much better or worse for you. After you’ve been using the above actions for some time, assess what works best.
Assess which of the above techniques work best for you, and focus on those.
Header image from briankaneonline.com.
- For a good summary of the scientific research, start with How to Beat Procrastination, which is largely a summary of the more in-depth book by Piers Steel, The Procrastination Equation. Steel’s book explains in much more detail what is known in the scientific literature about what works to defeat procrastination and the underlying neurobiology. [↩]